The middle of April is a good time to start seeds indoors for plants that will be set into the garden after the weather warms. Favorites to consider include tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers, and easy-to-seed flowers such as nasturtiums, marigolds and zinnias. You can buy basil plants now and enjoy them as houseplants as you harvest the leaves, but don’t put cold-sensitive basil outdoors until mid-June.
The most important lesson that successful gardeners from Western Washington learn is not to put heat-loving plants outdoors too early, and don’t try to grow sun-loving plants from seed without a good source of light. If you have a bright, south-facing window with wide ledges, then you may be able to grow healthy starts of tomatoes or peppers.
Most homes in our climate will need supplemental lighting or a home greenhouse to produce husky transplants that don’t reach painfully upward in search of more sunlight. Beginning gardeners will have better luck buying warm season vegetable starts in late May and then transplanting these directly into a prepared garden bed.
What tomato varieties do best in Western Washington? Last year, I purchased some heirloom varieties and none of the tomatoes turned red before winter. – R.T., Maple Valley
Tiny tomatoes perform best in our climate. Cherry tomatoes, patio tomatoes, Sweet 100, Sweet One Million, Husky Gold, Yellow pear, or any tomato with small fruit has the best chance of ripening before fall. If you’re after full-size tomatoes, then the heirloom or old fashioned tomatoes may boast superior flavor, but you need to notice how many days it takes for them to ripen. In our climate, Early Girl, Oregon Spring, Glacier, Early Wonder and Legend are a few of the varieties bred for cool summer nights. A newer variety called “Siletz” has been introduced out of Oregon State University that shows great promise for great taste and early ripening.
I want to plant perennial herbs and vegetables that don’t need to be replanted every spring. I know asparagus will return year after year, but what else can one eat for years, but only plant once? – T., via email
We’ve always had some mighty fine thymes, plus there are also hardy oregano, mint and chives that can be planted once and harvested year after year. Rhubarb is a perennial with huge leaves that work well into the landscape or even in the center of a container garden. If you have the room, planting horseradish roots just once will give you a lifetime supply for the entire neighborhood. (Warning: Horseradish can spread almost as fast as mint; Contain the underground roots with a barrier.)
What vegetables will grow in the shade? I live in a condo with a small patch of yard that is mostly shaded. – T.T., Tacoma
Most edibles crave full sun, but you can harvest leafy crops such as Swiss chard, lettuce, mints, and even a few blueberries in a partly shaded spot. The key here is how much shade. You might try planting in large pots set onto wheeled canisters to move your crops into the sun if nearby buildings cast shade for most of the day. Another solution is to ask the condo-owners for a patch of sunny ground in the public space to plant a personal or community garden. Vegetable gardens can be lovely. Present a beautiful design with geometric raised beds, mulched and weed-free pathways, and perhaps a bench or focal point in your plan for growing vegetables in a shared outdoor space. Be sure to keep the garden well-maintained to add to the curb appeal of the property.
I do realize seeds are a lot less expensive then buying plants. My question is for a new gardener how much money would I save if I bought flower and vegetable seeds, and started them myself versus just buying the plants? I want to grow tomatoes, marigolds, geraniums and lettuce. – P.T., Bonney Lake
Try growing both ways. Lettuce and marigolds are easy to start from seed, but I recommend beginners purchase plants of tomatoes and geraniums later in May. These two need so much heat and sunshine that they do better started in a greenhouse. Growing plants from seed can be inexpensive. You’ll save more than half of the cost of buying young plants if you use recycled pots, buy the seeding soil in bulk and have a bright and sunny spot to nurture the new seedlings without depending on extra lighting. There are reasons other than cost to practice the art of growing from seed. Sowing seeds gives you more choices of plant varieties including heirloom, self-saved and experimental varieties. Plus, there is the magic of watching a tiny seed sprout and transform right before your eyes. If you want to add more magic and amazement to your life – plant a seed.
I’m a first-grade teacher. What type of seeds do you recommend for kids to plant in paper cups in the classroom? We do have a sunny window where the seedlings can grow.– D.D., Olympia
I vote for nasturtiums. The seeds are large enough for kids to handle, plus you can soak the seeds overnight or pre-sprout them by wrapping them in a damp dish cloth for several days before you plant. Be sure the paper cups have drainage holes and use a lightweight potting soil made for seeding. Nasturtiums will bloom even in poor soil so when the kids take home their plant, there’s a better chance it will thrive when planted into the ground. Plus, all parts of the nasturtium are edible – the leaves and bright flowers add a peppery flavor to salads and hamburgers. Just warn the students that later in the summer nasturtiums attract aphids. Lots of kids enjoy squishing the aphid with their fingers as they find them on the plants or observing the drama of ladybug larvae devouring aphid alive. Take that, video games!
Marianne Binetti is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and eight other gardening books. She has a degree in horticulture from WSU and will answer questions from her website at www.binettigarden.com.
9 a.m. Saturday, Windmill Gardens in Sumner. “A Tale of Two Gardens – planting and maintaining a less work, more color landscape.” Register at windmillgarden.com
noon-2 p.m. Saturday, Puyallup Spring Fair, “New plants, new veggies, new ideas for spring.”